Easter 4A, 2017, St. Clement’s
If you rummage through the old photos of the church you can see that there used to be a fence at St. Clement’s. Tasteful and elegant, a hedgerow, ran alongside the edges of what we call the green--delineating the line between the public space of the sidewalk and the private property of the church.
The hedgerow is long gone, but the gate that stood at the intersection of Portland and Milton is still there.
It’s known as the lych gate. The lych gate, lich being the old English word for “corpse”, has traditionally served as the place where the priest receives the body prior to a funeral. In fact, the 1549 Book of Common Prayer made this liturgical action a requirement. However, over the centuries, the practice grew out of favor and few of our churches have these gates.
That said, our current Prayer Book has a provision for welcoming the body, and whenever there is a body present at a funeral at St. Clement’s, I keep this custom.
Instructing the family and friends that we do this so that the body of one we love can be brought back into the church one last time, escorted by friends, and welcomed with love. However, as I reflect upon the Gospel we hear today, I find that my explanation has fallen short in focusing on the journey and forgetting about the gate.
In the Gospel today, the gate is the means by which we enter into shelter and into the world. And, Jesus stands as the gate—a passage that must stand open if we are to live as God calls us to live.
Allow me to explain…
The gate we hear of in today’s Gospel, serves as a passageway between two places—the corral and the fields. In the pastoral world of the shepherd, the sheep came into the fenced corral at night and the gate was closed to protect them from danger.
But, the problem with grazing animals and a small enclosure, is that there isn’t anything to eat there. So, during the day, the gate is flung open and the shepherd takes the sheep out into the fields to graze and thrive.
If the sheep only stay within the sheltered confines of the corral, they will starve--it is in the world where they find nourishment and growth.
The boundary between corral and field is designed not to wall in, but to keep safe. Safe within a community of love and care where we are reminded of who we are and to whom we belong.
But, if the sheep don’t have a gate to travel through, if they don’t engage with the world outside of the gate, they will not live. But, so too, if they only stay outside in the world, and don’t return to the safety of the corral at night, they will be in danger. Both within and without are essential to the survival of the sheep.
It may seem peculiar to set aside the well known imagery of Jesus as shepherd and consider Jesus as the open gate. But, that is the beauty of this powerful figurative language, a simple change of viewpoint expands our own understanding of the grace of God inherent in the scripture.
Jesus is both the gate through which we pass and the Shepherd who leads us through.
Leads us, so that when we find ourselves lost in the world to which we’ve been called we can find ourselves as we are found by God. From the letter of first Peter, “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
And, so we return. We return via the gate, and guided by the shepherd so that we can love and serve God, both within and without the walls that divide us from the world beyond the gate.
The Gospel tells us that we need to be in here and also out there.
This weekend, we at St. Clement’s have been both within and without the walls. Welcoming our neighbors to support our ministries here within this place as well as offering an opportunity for fellowship and our own support of the ministries in our wider community. We flung open the gates.
And, gates wide open, we did as disciples do--
Breaking bread with each other, selling our goods for the care of others, and sharing the beauty of this place with all who care to enter.
Sharing the contagious and abundant joy of community. This is life abundant, is it not?
When we share this time and this space and this love with each other, we share the life abundant described in the Gospel today and lived out in the Acts of the Apostles.
And, on days when I feel overwhelmed by all that is happening in the world, I find strength and encouragement in this gathering. Because, no matter what happens out there, we have this in here. And, because we have this in here we can go out there with the strength of community and work towards a world in which the dignity of all is recognized and justice prevails out of mercy.
Passing through the gate in life, and with life abundant.
So, now, today we spend time together in the temple we call our church—gathered in community and prayer. And, from this gathering we are (hopefully) strengthened to go out into the world as witnesses to the Good News of a gate held open and a shepherd guiding us through.
None of what we do out there, is truly possible without all of what we do in here.
We need each other, we need to share the bread, we need to pray together, we need to do these things, so that our actions in the world can be grounded in that place where we know God’s love so fully and so completely that it is God’s abundant love that we convey when we go out into the world.
Here at St. Clement’s we used to have a fence. We took the fence down and all that remains is the open gate.
Let the people say, Amen.